What Price 'Work-Life Balance'?

26/09/2012 17:30 BST | Updated 26/11/2012 10:12 GMT

It is National Work-Life Week this week, a timely opportunity to reflect on how achievable so-called 'work-life balance' is in the current climate of economic downturn. Amid continuing fears for job security - not to mention the digital revolution which puts pressure on many workers to be available 24/7 - does 'balance' fall down the list of work priorities?

Not if you're a single parent - for whom finding (and keeping) work that fits with their caring responsibilities is their overriding aspiration, and one which, for many, dictates when, where and how many hours they work. New research from Gingerbread finds that practicalities come far ahead of personal ambition: hours of work, and childcare availability and affordability are key to single parents' success in moving into work and staying there.

It's clear that single parents overwhelmingly want to work - but while 59% of single parents already do (and most of the rest want to), many working single parents continue to face poverty, instability and a lack of opportunity for progression. Our research found that many single parents were in fact "bumping down" their careers - with higher qualified, skilled and experienced parents choosing to take jobs at a much lower level and salary than they should be able to command. Single parents told us that higher level jobs placed too great a demand on them in terms of time and responsibility for them to be able to balance work with their caring role. They felt that these jobs wouldn't be available with shorter or flexible hours and so were simply not an option for many.

"I'd do anything if it fitted around my hours, because then I'd be happier and less stressed."

This is no doubt a familiar story for many working parents (whether single parents or not) - so where do we go from here? Given the steady stream of political and media rhetoric that more single parents should be in work, and increasing pressure on them to do so once their youngest child reaches the age of five, what can be done about supporting single parents in the labour market to allow them to fulfil their potential and balance work with their role as a parent?

We spoke to employers across different sectors to understand more about how they supported the needs of a range of employees with external demands on their time. These employers strongly emphasised the business benefits of offering flexible working arrangements, such as the ability to trade for longer as a result of offering a variety of start times and hours patterns; a reduction in overhead costs; and greater productivity and customer satisfaction stemming from happier staff. In many cases, relatively small changes can make a big difference - allowing staff to flex their start and finish times to accommodate the school run, for example, or making use of technology to promote working from home.

"A flexible approach is paramount - being in 10 minutes later so school drop can be done, leaving to pick up from school etc, being able to make up for time during lunch, working from home - being productive does not mean sticking to past rules."

However, all too often employers use flexible working policies largely as a retention rather than recruitment tool - these policies are rarely designed into a new role from the beginning. It's time for this culture to change: as technology increases the possibilities for a mobile workforce, more employers should look to how roles can be created to offer in-built flexibility, rather than just stick to the tried and tested full or part-time, 9 to 5, office-based model. This is where technology can be a force for good - freeing workers up from being tied to their desks at particular times - rather than a virtual ball and chain expecting workers to be 'switched on' round the clock.

Ultimately we all win if, as a nation, we are able to benefit in full from the diverse talent pool of employees and potential employees out there. So go on, next time you're recruiting take a look at our top tips for employers and see how you can redesign a new role to accommodate the broadest range of candidates possible. The workforce is waiting.

"You should have the option not to dumb down just because you want shorter hours".

And don't forget to clock off on time yourself today while you're at it...